Friday, January 2, 2015

Thorn Point: A Personal History

This piece was originally published in the October, 2014 Angeles National Forest Fire Lookout Association newsletter. It isn't a post about my experiences in the mountains, but it is a story of the Southland mountains so I figured it fit within the artificial parameters of this blog closely enough. Thanks to David Stillman for introducing me to Lorinda Poole and of course, to Rinnie herself for sharing so much of her personal history with me.  

Thorn Point Fire Lookout circa 1971. Photograph courtesy of Lorinda Poole.
This is a story about the Thorn Point fire lookout. No, that’s really not accurate. This is actually a story about much more than that. This is a personal history of a young and inexperienced fire lookout that spent the summer of 1971 at remote Thorn Point surveying the vast Los Padres National Forest for signs of fire and smoke. The tower from which she made this survey merely serves as the backdrop for the story.

Of course, that is certainly not how I originally conceived this piece. When I first began this project, I was going to dutifully tell you all about the old, abandoned Thorn Point fire lookout itself. I was going to tell you that the lookout was originally constructed in 1933 and that it is one of five towers still remaining in the Mt. Pinos Ranger District. I was going to provide you with a wealth of dry, technical details about the lookout structure itself, like the fact that it consists of a 14’ x 14’ L-4 cab with a catwalk on a 20’ H-braced tower. I was going to tell you that the tower is located at 6,935 feet and commands unobstructed views of the Sespe Wilderness to the south, Pine Mountain to the west, Mt. Pinos and the San Emigdio Mesa to the north, and Cobblestone Mountain and friends to the east. And, I was going to let you know that if you are adventurous enough, you can still visit the Thorn Point lookout by way of a 3.5 mile hike ascending approximately 2,000 feet from the Thorn Meadows trailhead located at the terminus of Grade Valley Road (7N03).

But then I was introduced to Lorinda Poole. “Rinnie” as she is known to her friends, was a forest service brat whose parents and grandparents all spent time as fire lookouts. She grew up among gold miners, ranchers, loggers, and forest service employees in the Stanislaus National Forest near Yosemite National Park. Her home “town” consisted of a one room school house, community hall, chapel, grocery store, and cabins scattered throughout the trees and meadows. Two hours down a winding forest road sat the nearest town where Rinnie’s family could both obtain monthly supplies and catch up on “how the rest of the world was living.”

In 1970 at the age of 20, Rinnie left the Stanislaus for the more exciting pastures of Southern California. When her money eventually ran low, she ended up at the home of Hurston Buck, a close family friend from the Stanislaus who had settled in New Cuyama. Hurston, as it turned out, was the Fire Control Officer for the Los Padres National Forest and was responsible for managing the various lookout towers that dotted the vast Los Padres.   

A few days after arriving at the Buck home, Hurston asked Rinnie if she would “take a lookout for him.” Although she had not herself functioned as a fire lookout before, Rinnie was generally familiar the routine having spent her youth in and around the business.  As a result, all that it took was for Hurston to give her a brief refresher on her “10 Code” and the next day Rinnie was up in the Cuyama Peak lookout tower serving as the eyes of the forest service. Rinnie then spent the remainder of that summer at Cuyama Peak scanning the hills, valleys, and badlands below for signs of trouble. The fire lookout hook was set.

During the winter of 1970, Rinnie discovered that the forest service needed a lookout for the tower at Thorn Point the following summer. She excitedly jumped at the chance. Rinnie’s enthusiasm for Thorn Point stemmed partially from the fact that her father, as a 17 year old lad, was part of the crew that originally built the tower. Years later, he told Rinnie that the materials to construct the lookout were hauled to the site by mule train. According to Rinnie’s father, a crew of workers stationed near the trailhead at Thorn Meadows would load a string of mules with supplies and send them off on their own up the trail. When the beasts of burden reached Thorn Point, another crew of workers who were stationed there unpacked the provisions and then sent the mule string back down the mountain unaccompanied to retrieve another load. Mule train by mule train, the Thorn Point fire lookout was thus built.

In late spring of 1971, Thorn Point was officially Rinnie’s for the duration of the fire season. Before assuming her lookout responsibilities at Thorn, however, Rinnie spent some time training at Slide Mountain. “Training” in this context is a bit of a misnomer. It was more like baptism by forest fire. A forest service employee drove Rinnie to the end of the dirt road leading up to Slide and unceremoniously dropped her off with no training, no instruction, and no orientation. With no idea of what was expected of her, Rinnie made the solo trek to the empty tower where three separate radios awaited her—one for the Angeles National Forest, one for the Los Padres National Forest, and one for the crew that was constructing the dam at Pyramid Lake. Two or so uneventful days later, she was on her way to Thorn Point for the summer.

Entrance to Grade Valley Road circa 1971. Photograph courtesy of Lorinda Poole.

Thorn Point from Grade Valley Road circa 1971. Photograph courtesy of Lorinda Poole.
Even by today’s standards, Thorn Point is fairly isolated. Getting there requires some time and effort. Forty-three years ago when Rinnie first went in, the place was remote and getting there required real work. Starting from the Chuchupate Ranger Station, Rinnie was first driven by USFS personnel 8 miles down graded Lockwood Valley Road. Then, it was another 11 mile drive on dirt down Grade Valley Road to the trailhead at Thorn Meadows. At Thorn Meadows, Rinnie and her driver packed mules and mounted horses for the final 3.5 mile push up the single-track trail to her awaiting summer home on the Point.

Near the trailhead at Thorn Meadows circa 1971. Photograph courtesy of Lorinda Poole. 
For the next several months, Rinnie, now 21, spent 24 hours a day, 7 days a week alone at Thorn Point. Every two weeks or so depending upon conditions, forest service personnel packed food, water, and propane into her by mule. Other than the folks that brought her supplies, however, Rinnie only saw two other people at the tower the entire fire season.

Conditions and the facilities at the tower were anything but luxurious, but Rinnie’s upbringing had prepared her well for the experience. The tower itself was equipped with a cot, a gas cooking stove, a small propane refrigerator that had an ice compartment large enough to accommodate two ice-trays, and an obligatory Osborne fire finder.  Beneath the tower sat a redwood tank that was used to store rain water collected from the roof of the lookout. Beyond the tower sat a one-room wooden cabin and red metal shed that functioned as a woodshed. The entire “complex” was encircled by a barricade of big rocks that hemmed the lookout in and formed a yard of sorts for Rinnie’s horse.   

Interior of the Thorn Point Lookout as it looks today.

Stand upon which the Osborne Fire Finder sat.

Old stove still in the Thorn Point Fire Lookout
Water (or more appropriately, the lack thereof) and boredom were Rinnie’s biggest challenges during the long, hot summer. Since there was no natural water source nearby, all of Rinnie’s water had to be packed in on mules by forest personnel. But because a 5 gallon plastic container weighed 40+ pounds, the amount that could be hauled in was necessarily limited. Thus, Rinnie was required to be creative in how she used this very precious commodity.

“Being by myself, I could conserve ways that if someone else was with me couldn’t be done too well. It depended on what chores, etc. I had to do as to what order I used and re-used the same water. If my hair needed to be washed, then I didn’t want greasy dish water…so hair came first, then the dishes, then my clothes, a dishpan out on the catwalk for the bath…and the last step for the recycled water was to pour it down on my poor horse to drink.”

The original map for the Osborne Fire Finder used by Rinnie. Photograph courtesy of Lorinda Poole.

Rock formations outside the "yard" at Thorn Point. Photograph courtesy of Lorinda Poole.

Rinnie's pack horse "Skeeter" at Thorn Point circa 1971. Photographs courtesy of Lorinda Poole.
The water in the redwood tank beneath the tower was for use in case of a fire. But on one occasion when Rinnie was feeling particularly grungy and hot, she succumbed to temptation and poached some water for an impromptu shower. This required a bit of ingenuity on Rinnie’s part. First she took a length of hose and connected it to the tank. She then filled the hose with water and laid it out in the sun all day to warm. Later that evening, Rinnie hung the hose over a small pine tree on the back side of the cabin and enjoyed the guilty pleasure of a warm shower. 

To help combat the tedium, Rinnie busied herself with sprucing up the tower cabin. She had the forest service pack in some paste wax which she used to transform the linoleum floor from a dirty black to its original dark green. She also painted all of the cupboards in the cabin with a can of red paint she found that the forest service used to paint its signs. Before the paint dried, Rinnie used an ice pick to engrave a mountain lion, fawn, and squirrel into the cupboards. She also etched pinecones and pine needles along the borders. Those engravings, indelible proof that Rinnie was there, have stood the test of time and can still be seen today by visitors to the tower.        

One of Rinnie's etchings in the cupboards at Thorn Point. Copyright © 2014 David Stillman. Used with permission.

One of Rinnie's etchings in the cupboards at Thorn Point. Copyright © 2014 David Stillman. Used with permission
Fortunately or unfortunately, the fire season Rinnie spent at Thorn Point was extraordinarily quiet. There were one or two illegal campfires in Grade Valley that season, but Rinnie does not recall any wildfires that summer in either the Mt. Pinos or Cuyama districts.

Near the end of her stint at Thorn Point, the forest service allowed Rinnie 4-days of R&R. Upon learning about her time off, Rinnie locked up the tower and literally ran down the trail to meet a forest service employee who drove her to Frazier Park. There, she caught a bus north to Stanislaus to go visit her folks for two days. She then caught the bus back to Frazier Park so she could complete her time at Thorn Point.

The bus going south got Rinnie back to Frazier Park much later than she thought it would and certainly much later than she wanted. By the time her ride dropped her at the trailhead at Thorn Meadows, dusk had firmly set in. Armed with only a small flashlight and the light of the moon, Rinnie began the 3.5 miles trek back to Thorn Point alone.

“I tried not to use my light to conserve on the batteries and use the moonlight all that I could. I remember coming up to the big switchback where the trail overlooks the rugged country of pinnacles that look like a different world than what I had just come through. That was the same place that stock always got a breather for a few minutes when packing supplies in. Anyway, I was just up from there a ways and starting to level out on the top of the ridge before you start through the big timber on the last trek of the trail and I heard this scream…a scream that I was familiar in hearing on some nights when in the tower…but…I wasn’t in the tower. I was still on the trail with a long ways to go with a small flashlight. I’m not real tall and my legs could certainly have been longer in my opinion, but long or short, my legs got me up that trail faster than I have ever thought I could go...out of breath, needing a rest…just kept on going…and…I didn’t get eaten, because here I am.”

Rinnie and Freckles Ascending the Thorn Point Trail circa 1971. Photograph courtesy of Lorinda Poole.
After leaving Thorn Point, Rinnie worked a number of other towers in both California and Idaho. In the summer of ’72, Rinnie was assigned to the Sierra Vista lookout located in the Sierra foothills approximately 4 miles as the crow flies from San Andreas, California. From 1981-1983, Rinnie assumed responsibility for the Blue Mountain lookout, a tower that her parents manned through the end of the 1980 fire season. In 1991, after relocating to Idaho, Rinnie found herself assigned to the Indian Mountain lookout in the Payette National Forest. Near the end of the fire season, she was re-assigned to Horse Mountain which sits on the Oregon-Idaho border and the brink of Hells Canyon. Her first day in that tower, she reported a fire.

Despite a lifetime as a lookout on the Stanislaus and in the Payette National Forest, Rinnie still harbors great fondness for Thorn Point.

“I don’t know if it was the time period in my life or because I knew my father got to help in its being built, but that mountain top with those scary big rocks tug at my heart every time I think of it. It seems I can remember every bend in the trail, from the ferns at the bottom of the trail, to the finely ground soil that didn’t give the trial much substance to the big outcroppings of pinnacles looking like a ‘no man’s land’ and then the final climb…through the large timber with open ground beneath…Oh, I loved that part of the trail whether riding my horse ‘Freckles’ or on foot.”   

Looking at pictures of Thorn Point today, and the deterioration of the tower that she called home during the summer of 1971, Rinnie is melancholy.

         “I haven’t wanted Thorn to be taken by fire…but honestly, the more I see what has
          happened to the other towers, I almost wish that a fire would take her. I think it
          would preserve her dignity instead of ending up like Cuyama Peak.”

View South from Thorn Point

View of the Channel Islands from Thorn Point

View north into the badlands from Thorn Point

The Thorn Point Lookout as she looks today

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